From age 22 to 23, I lived in England. I was there for graduate school, but really I was there for something else: to wrestle with that question all people of faith must wrestle with at some point, “Why do I believe what I believe?”
I am a pastor’s daughter, raised in the Bible Belt of the U.S., a region that spans from Central and West Texas to the East Coast, as far north as West Virginia. These boundaries, of course, are debatable, but it certainly felt like I’ve lived in the Bible Belt growing up in Texas. And it certainly felt like this when I arrived in Oxford, England, in 2008, wide-eyed and with absolutely no clue what I had just gotten myself into.
Back home in Texas, I attended a Christian university.
In Oxford, I wondered if I might be the only Christian at my university.
Back home, I volunteered at Christian youth gatherings like Young Life.
In Oxford, I one time found myself at a gathering for college students called the Atheist Society.
Back home, I had quiet times every morning.
In Oxford, I had quiet times, but they felt eerily quiet, as if nobody was listening.
When it came to my faith, Oxford shook me up and out and everywhere. That’s what happens when you are plucked out of everything familiar and comfortable and dropped into a world that is much bigger than Texas, much bigger than the faith of your childhood.
Seeing faith through the eyes of my atheist and agnostic friends in class revealed to me how absolutely insane Christianity appears to the non-believer. A guy, who is “God’s Son,” died on a cross for our sins? You can’t just go around saying that kind of stuff in Oxford. It sounds nuts.
Maybe, I wondered, it is nuts.
Maybe you’re wondering that too. Maybe it’s been a long time since your conversion, and you’re really not sure about all this God and Jesus stuff anymore. Maybe you’re a logical and reasonable person, and faith isn’t making sense right now. Maybe you’re an emotionally driven person, and you can’t remember that last time you felt the presence of God.
No matter where on the journey of doubt you find yourself, you may find it helpful to keep these three things in mine:
1. Don’t deny or fear your doubt.
Doubt is not the absence of faith; it is a critical and necessary step on the path toward faith, however crooked that path may be. I doubt the faith of people who haven’t doubted much more than those who have a longtime relationship with doubt. I am skeptical of the non-skeptical.
Oswald Chambers says it best: “Always make a practice to stir your own mind thoroughly to think through what you have easily believed. Your position is not really yours until you make it yours through suffering and study.”
Sometimes faith comes very naturally, and sometimes everything we’ve ever believed is suddenly thrust under a microscope and we are forced to examine it. It’s okay to look. In fact, please look. Because if you don’t, what are you looking at instead?
I have found in my life that the times I experience the most growth in my beliefs came after a time of wrestling, a time of sitting in the uncomfortable unknown and asking God about it. I once heard someone call this “going to the mat with God.” It’s that idea of Jacob wrestling the angel in Genesis 32. In light of that story, God certainly doesn’t mind your questions. You can ask them all night.
Addie Zierman wrote recently: “Wrestle. Rage. Blow the whole thing up. This is not how you lose faith. This is how you claim it.”
2. Talk to the people who talk to God.
I once heard author and pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber speak. During the question and answer session at the end, a guy stood up and said, “I had faith and it was strong, but now I’m doubting. I feel weak in my faith. What should I do?”
Bolz-Weber’s suggestion? “You can take a break now. Let someone else on the pew be strong for you.”
I like this idea of giving each other permission to take a break from trying and let the others on the pew be strong for us for a little while. A friend did this for me in Oxford. Though, I don’t think he knew he was doing this. In fact, neither did I, not until I looked at my Oxford story in hindsight.
I talked to this friend more than I talked to God that year. It’s not that he and I had deep conversations about apologetics or that we read the Bible together or prayed. We didn’t do those things. We were just friends who hung out and talked like normal people, but something about his presence, something about his nearness brought the exact amount of encouragement I needed at that exact time.
When I couldn’t, I knew he talked to God. I didn’t know this because he told me. I knew because in his spirit was a quietness and a steadiness.
When you can’t talk to God, talk to someone who can.
3. Something is happening.
Christian Wiman wrote in his book My Bright Abyss, “Doubt is painful…but its pain is active rather than passive, purifying rather than stultifying. Far beneath it, no matter how severe its drought, how thoroughly your skepticism seems to have salted the ground of your soul, faith, durable faith, is steadily taking root.”
One of the most difficult things about doubt is it can feel like nothing is happening. God has gone silent. Scripture sounds empty. The nothingness can be hard to bear. But let me tell you, as your friend who is talking to God right now, that God doesn’t do nothingness. That’s not really the business he is in.
Isaiah 55:10-11 says, “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish…so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”
To echo Wiman, could it be that something is happening beneath the surface? Something you will not see during the wrestling and during the nothing, but that you will see so brightly and clearly after?
It’s not an idea you have to cling to right now, but toss it around. See how it feels. Perhaps a little hope will squeeze through the crack.
Andrea Lucado is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. She is the author of English Lessons: The Crooked Path of Growing Toward Faith and blogs regularly at AndreaLucado.com. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter: @andrealucado.